Before there was a Whole Foods in Gowanus, Littlefield was alone in the industrial neighborhood.
But it quickly developed into a stomping ground for comics Wyatt Cenac, Aparna Nancherla and Maeve Higgins and became a staple for anyone looking for a good time in the rapidly transforming neighborhood. In any given week, Littlefield has an eclectic variety of fun, from stand-up to themed comedy like "Tinder Live!" with Lane Moore, and from a Punderdome competition to a "Nerd Night" speed dating event.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Littlefield (635 Sackett St.) is throwing a weeklong program of events (May 17-26) featuring artists and comedians — Kurt Braunohler with guest DJ Ted Leo, Butterboy with Jo, Nancherla and Higgins, and music by Oneida, Califone, Dig Deeper presents The Masqueraders, Contemporaneous and Projeto Arcomusical, among other acts.
To mark the occasion, we spoke with co-owner Julie Kim about her foray into the entertainment business and how Littlefield has evolved over the past decade.
You were an environmental engineer and your partner was a chef – that is quite a pivot.
My business partner [Scott Koshnoodi] and I met in engineering school and shortly after he started working for the consulting firm we were both at, he changed careers pretty quickly to become a chef and worked at amazing fine-dining restaurants in New York City, like WD~50 and Aquavit.
I stayed on as an engineer for a decade and toward the end of my career wanted to do something impactful … I felt like a small cog in a giant thing. I didn’t know if I was making a difference.
My passion is in live music, performance and art, but I’m not an artist. We both shared that. We both were in school at the University of Texas in Austin, which had a great music scene in the 1990s. I grew up in New York, but when I came back, the live music here and performances were booming and I wanted to be a part of that. I approached [Koshnoodi] about opening a venue.
He paused his career to help me out. We set about doing this a little naive about our expectations — we had never done this before and didn’t think our background was appropriate. And we opened in 2009, in the start of the great recession. It was very challenging.
We found space on DeGraw Street in Gowanus when there was nothing there. We were the first ones to come in and change the zoning from manufacturing to business and we felt passionate about doing that. The community was supportive and we wanted to integrate culturally into that area. There were artists living and working there, and we wanted to help them become more visible and become part of the neighborhood.
Has it become what you initially envisioned?
It has definitely grown in a great way and an organic way. First, we started out as a small business and had a small core staff. We had to learn to adapt. Initially, we were trying to become a neighborhood bar but it was not the street [for that]. It didn’t have the high traffic we do now. We wanted to put on special events that people would come to, so we said, let’s try comedy. At the time, it was really hard to compete with larger venues, so we started bringing on board young comedy producers in a weekly slot and it ended up being one of the most successful things we’ve done. We cultivated the comedy scene in Brooklyn.
Everything graduated organically into something bigger and better because we are a smaller size venue, and we’re always there to engage with all the events we have.
What makes Littlefield events Littlefield events?
The events are eclectic, but we do have a vetting process. We look at where the events come from, who is producing the shows if the event is growing because, if they’re doing great now, we can help along the way.
And we look at these as what we would go see. Things sound quirky on paper if good people and other comedians or musicians are outside of the box. We give them a shot and we’re down for doing that. We like to do things that are a little bit more unique … anything with themes and fully curated.
Looking back, what have you learned?
It’s very hard. It’s the hardest hustle I’ve ever had, but every night I go home feeling great and satisfied. It’s just about the interaction with everyone and we love hearing feedback.
I don’t think we’ve become jaded, but part of that is keeping things fresh by trying new and different things. When we had the opportunity to move Littlefield to Sackett Street in June 2017, we wanted to make a 2.0 that is even better and promote even better shows.
What would you say your role is in the community?
For us, we like to showcase local artists, whether they’re musicians, fine artists, filmmakers or comedians, before they become known so they can approach us and shop their show or idea with us. It’s something we’re very proud of. Because we were one of the pioneers here in Gowanus, we do like that the community board is trying to keep that balance of having more commercial business come in but retain some of the manufacturing that was originally here. As much as we want more people to come to the neighborhood, we have to be mindful not to overbuild.
I don’t want to see the neighborhood morph into something artificial. We talk to neighbors often about the issues they’re facing and reaching out to council members about whether something might not be a good fit. As busy as we are, we keep our ear out for important issues.
Where do you want to go in the next 10 years?
We’d love to grow and expand, whether it’s in the form of another venue or another type of venue, but I imagine us hosting new types of events that have a wider reach than just New York City, whether that is reaching out to other entities outside of New York. For a while, we’ve been thinking about happenings with augmented reality or virtual reality. We’re adapting and adjusting and trying to figure out where our niche is.
What do you want people to know ahead of the celebration?
We have about nine or 10 events that will encompass what it’s all about, ranging from comedy to live music and dance parties. There’s always something for somebody and we’re not one type of venue. We are very humbled by our patrons and our community that has supported us and want to thank everybody for allowing us to be here to flourish and being faithful to Gowanus.